There once was an orphan girl who passing as a man served in the British army and navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Born in London in 1778, Mary Ann Talbot was one of sixteen illegitimate children of a British baron. Or maybe she wasn’t. But it’s a great origin story, no? At age 14 she became the mistress of a sea captain who signed her on as his “footboy” on the way to Santa Domingo under the name “John Taylor.”Now that must have set a couple tongues to wagging on the ship. Anyway Talbot, as Taylor, ended up as a drummer-boy in the first war against Revolutionary France. Her lover the captain died, she was wounded (but treated herself) but the whole fighting in wars as a male stuck. She deserted the British, an instead joined a French ship as a cabin boy. Then the British captured the ship, and she became a powder monkey for the British, carrying bags of gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the gun crews. Then after being wounded again, and being captured again (this time by the French) she spent 18 months in a dungeon in Dunkirk. Now mind you, she apparently was still passing all this time.
By the time she was freed in a 1796 prisoner exchange she apparently decided to take a break from the whole war scene. The war scene, yes, but not the passing as a man scene. Talbot signed on with a British merchant ship, the Ariel, captained by John Field. She must have cut an impressive figure, because she was essentially made agent on board, keeping the books, paying the men and supervising the loading and unloading of cargo. She sailed to New York and more importantly for our interests here, to Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island, Talbot as Taylor visited with captain Field’s family in Providence. On the voyage, Fields had taken the young man under his wing. In Providence for two weeks, Field included Taylor in all the family’s social life, including a visit to his own father. Field’s wife took to him fondly as well. It seems the Field family had a plan for the promising young man. Among the household was Field’s niece, a young woman who became quite attached to Taylor. The niece (who’s not named in Taylor’s own account) apparently was so bold as to propose marriage. Taylor would later say, “I made several excuses, but could not divert her attention from what she proposed. ” Mrs. Field supposedly put up a token objection on the basis of Taylor’s youth and world inexperience (one wonders if she knew about the whole 18 months in a Dunkirk dungeon). The niece would not be deterred, however. Before she’d allow Talbot to leave she insisted on a picture, a miniature for which Talbot sat in the full uniform of an American naval officer. Only with reassurances from both Field and Taylor of their speedy return could the two make it out of the state.
Field promised Taylor that after one or two more voyages together he’d retire and give over the vessel to Taylor’s captaincy. Unfortunately Taylor’s luck didn’t hold. Shortly after departing on their next voyage, Taylor and another seamen left ship in plain seaman’s (rather than officer’s) dress for a little excursion. They ran into a press-gang. The British Navy, short of sailors in large part because they’d been getting killed quite frequently in the ongoing battles with the French, had taken to basically kidnapping sailors and forcing them into service. (In another 14 years or so the practice would become the primary justification for the US’s first foreign war.) Taylor could come up with only one way out — literally. She outted herself as herself much to the surprise and initial disbelief of her captors. Capt. Field found it awfully hard to believe as well. When he heard about it, Field urged Talbot to resume being Taylor and rejoin their voyages. she never did. She lived out her life alternating between male and female dress, sometimes living as a woman, sometimes passing as a man. But she never returned to Providence, and one has to wonder, did Captain Field ever tell his niece?
To read Mary Ann Talbot’s story as she told it herself The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, in the Name of John Taylor (1809)